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Tuesday 9 March 2021

Ton Pels

Ton Pels
Robin Bradley reports on the death of a friend and innovator …

Widely and correctively credited with effectively creating the V-twin parts and accessory industry in Europe, Ton was a former authorized Harley dealer who had a glittering Drag Race career, winning multiple European Super Twins Top Fuel Championships and setting records that still stand to this day.
The story of the Zodiac business goes back to 1969 in the United States - ultimately becoming Zodiac Enterprises Ltd., whose 'ZEL' product numbers adorned millions of blister packs for decades.

Ton opened his own motorcycle shop in 1974 (Promotor), and after a period as an authorized dealer for a then still AMF owned Harley-Davidson, closed it in 1979 and went instead to work for a Dutch owned aftermarket parts and accessory business.
Eventually Ton partnered with the owners of Zodiac and opened a 2,000 sq ft warehouse in the Netherlands, with the first of a sequence of growth-driven expansions seeing him drop anchor in Mijdrecht - where Zodiac International, as it became, is still headquartered today.
In the early 1980s there were very few Harley-specific businesses in Europe - there were no Harley P&A specific distributors, and even most of the custom shops who saw themselves as Harley specialists worked on any bike that came their way.
With a combination of own brand parts designs and third-party contracts, with most of the leading U.S. brands at one stage or another, Ton really blazed a trail.
The fist Zodiac catalog appeared early in the development of the business - in 1982 - and around that time Ton and his always supportive and equally hard-working wife Marianne exhibited at IFMA for the first time, the then large trade fair in Cologne, Germany - the precursor to today's INTERMOT.
Zodiac was the first of the custom P&A businesses in Europe to do so. Although they may not have realized it as such at the time, Ton and Marianne had embarked on a career that saw them pioneer many of the hallmarks of aftermarket parts and accessory distribution that, 40 years later, we now take for granted.
Ton was the first to get his catalog translated, with it eventually appearing in multiple languages, with sales supported by a multilingual international network of dedicated sales agents - the first such network in Europe. Investments in information technology for ordering, inventory control and order handling saw Zodiac stay ahead of its burgeoning list of competitors in Europe.
It is easy to forget now, but at a time when even Windows was a gleam in Bill Gate's eye, never mind the brave new post dial-up world of digital communications, such steps really were a 'Biggie' back then. It didn't hurt that when he did so, Ton's son Vincent came into the business after a successful IT career at IBM!
Customer appreciation became a cornerstone of the Zodiac model. The company's annual dealer shows quickly became popular and are a now legendary event that brought the proto European Harley-Davidson aftermarket together for weekends of communal V-twin celebration and indulgence on an often industrial scale!

Having built bikes (and drag bikes) himself, Ton was an early adopter where complete custom bike builds and, eventually, product-matched and fully styled kits were concerned. Ton was a champion of the work of the emerging custom bike building community and parts design and manufacturing business sectors in Europe.
Ton Pels dedicated the best years of his working and personal life to laying down the foundations on which the custom parts and accessory market in Europe is still based today. He walked the walk through his racing and engineering prowess, as well as talking the talk, and it is no exaggeration to say that he did much to create a market from which hundreds, if not thousands, have been able to build careers, livelihoods and businesses of their own - including me.
Ton's early adoption of the opportunities I was trying to build for the industry he was building, his friendship, his mentoring among the vendor community in the United States especially, and his loyalty to and long-term backing for my ideas - including those that didn't get very far sometimes - have much to do with the reason why you are able to read this eulogy to 'The Godfather' today.
Above all else though, Ton was a loving husband and father, and our thoughts and best wishes are with Ton's wife Marianne, his family, including his son Vincent, who has followed in Ton's footprints as the present GM for Zodiac, past and present Zodiac International employees, and all those who, like me, are proud to have known him and been able to regard him as their friend.